Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The New Yorker: "The Stain" by Tessa Hadley

November 7, 2011: “The Stain” by Tessa Hadley

Here’s another story by Tessa Hadley, the third this year. I like Hadley’s work, and this story is terrific most of the way, but goes off the rails at the end, in my opinion.

It’s the story of Marina, a working-class woman, the wife of Gary and mother of Liam. Gary’s business isn’t going so well, so Marina needs to earn some extra money. She is hired by Wendy to take care of her father, who lives alone in a big house in their village. Marina is familiar with the house, having passed it often when she was a child, always wondering what it was like inside. Now she knows. It’s dark. It’s unrenovated because the old man didn’t want to change anything—and so there are still the outlines of pictures on the wall that the previous owners have removed.

Wendy and the old man have moved from South Africa, although Wendy’s accent is nearly gone. Marina takes very good care of the man, who becomes very fond of her. He tries to give her money and other gifts and even wants to give her his house. Gary wouldn’t mind if she accepted something—they could use the money or they could put it aside for Liam’s education—but he mostly understands why she won’t. She is briefly in conflict with Wendy and then with Wendy’s son over the old man’s desire to be generous with her.

So far so good. There’s nice tension over the conflict between Marina and the old man and his family. The house is described beautifully. The old man plays with Liam in the garden when Marina brings the boy, and we get a detailed portrait of the character of the old man and Marina. Or at least we think we know the old man. Near the end, the old man’s grandson reveals something about his grandfather—the “stain” of the title—and then the piece is over in a huge rush. Too much of a rush, and that spoiled the story for me.

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